Time to do some sour bottling! A few months back I started aging some of my first sour beer on different kinds of fruit. Its been a few months now, so its time to start bottling up these beers so that they can condition properly and I can start sharing them with friends. This is a special bottling because these beers took almost two whole years to make. No screwing this one up! With a beer as old as this I decided I needed to label and dress up the bottles. I almost never label any beers. We usually just stick an avery sticker on the bottle cap which is easily removable should we want to submit it to competition. With these beers, I dont think I am willing to sacrifice 2 or 3 bottles to a competition. So what should the finished beers look like?
I have searched high and low for this and have yet to find it, but I would love to bottle my sours in a small champagne style brown bottle. Unfortunately I cannot find this type of bottle for sale for homebrewers. The only retailers of smaller bottles only sell their bottles by the pallet. So my choice is to use the small 375 belgian bottles developed by Russian River / The Lost Abbey / North Coast that have become so popular for good reason. They mimic the shape of the 750ml bottles belgian brewers use but provide a smaller size which works perfectly for homebrewers who still want to submit these to competition, or dont want to have to open up a full 750ml to drink. These bottles come in two types – Cork and Cage version and the cap version:
I decided that I would avoid the corking method for this batch. I have a bunch of Kryeke corked and caged and while I would love to cork and cap these bottles I dont have the proper equipment to do so. So I decided to cap them and top off the bottles with bottle wax. But what color?
Ive mentioned this before, but I was really into wine for a number of years. I still am to a degree, but not compared to my obsession with beer. Still though, I really appreciate the design of most wine labels. In most cases simplicity is the star with simple text. I was trying to figure out how to do my own wine label inspired design when I stumbled onto an awesome post on the beer website called “Drink Belgian Beer” @ drinkbelgianbeer.com. It is a great beer blog written by well known Belgian beer specialist Chuck Cook. I was looking for older label designs of sour beers like Drie Fonteinen and Boon, etc. when I found a picture of an old bottle of Cantillon:
I found the post on Chuck’s website and started reading about his experience opening a 1975 Cantillon Kriek. Beyond being intrigued about what a beer that old would taste like, I was really intrigued by the lack of label – which I originally incorrectly assumed was because it was so old and the label must have fallen off long ago. Chuck goes on to explain that the lack of label was actually how lambics were bottled back then:
Caption reads, “Bottles of Kriek in the cellar of Cafe Bodega. The brewery is unknown. The red stripe identifies it as a kriek.”
This blog post – along with another one from drinkbelgianbeer.com became my inspiration for label design. I want to do the same with my beers, but like any cover song you can’t do the exact same thing or it isn’t interesting. Its just plagiarism. The general look that Cantillon achieved was simple and clean – so I wanted to make sure that I did the same thing with my beers. The front label is just going to consist of our new “brewery” logo Kingsley came up with at the bottom center with a single brush stroke of color above it.
I tried using acrylic paint and oil paint with poor results. The oil looked amazing but it never really dried and the acrylic didn’t look quite as vibrant. I ended up just using some of the same wax I dipped the bottles into with my paint brush to achieve my look. I also added a small back label to each different beer that lists the name of the fruit in french at the top and provides a small story about the history of the label design (I embellished a bit and make it sound like all breweries used to label their beers this way, mostly because I didn’t want to include Cantillon on the label). The beer inside the bottle and the label outside both pay tribute to the lambic beers of Belgium as a whole, not just Cantillon.
For waxing the bottles, I didn’t want to add wax that was so thick that you need to use a hacksaw to open the bottles. Im going for more of a crooked stave thickness where the wax isn’t super thick, as opposed to the thick wax you would typically find on a bottle of Makers Mark or Abyss or something. To achieve this I purchased the following ingredients:
- Crayons – For the base color mixing
- Metallic Crayons – to add a small tinge of flair
- Hot Glue Gun Sticks – this helps to thicken up the wax a bit
- Base white bottle wax. – the bulk of the mixture
- Pet food lids – If you want to cover your cans after this first use.
- A six pack of used bottles to use as wax testers.
I first read about this on Bertus Brewery a few years ago and filed it away in my bookmarks. I like the look of his bottles – obviously he spent a lot of time dialing in the look – but I had to come up with my own ratios to get a good mixture. My method is as follows: Buy some canned goods and after you empty the cans wash them and stow them away until you are ready to mix up the wax. Place the can on your stove top on medium heat and fill the can up 1/4 of the way with the base white bottle wax. The key here is to not get the wax too hot. You want it to slowly melt down. Keep adding wax beads in small amounts and stirring them until you have the can around 1/2 full. Add one metallic FX crayon that is close to the color you are targeting. One should be enough for 24 bottles. Once that crayon has melted in add your colored crayons to the mixture in small amounts, one at a time until you have achieved your target color. At this point you should dip one of your six pack of bottles into the melted wax to get an idea of the consistency. If the wax is runny or too thin for your taste add one glue stick (cut up into small pieces) and try on another one of your used bottles. Keep repeating this process until you find the right mixture but keep in mind that the mixtures may not be the same for each different color. The first color that I worked on was pink for my Fraise (strawberry) bottles. After I found the perfect mixture I just replicated that with my blackberry mixture which came out a lot thicker. You can see from the pictures below that the Framboise, Fraise and Abricot bottles all show the PD logo of Pipe Dream on the bottle cap through the wax while the purple Mure bottles do not. It happens. I thinned out the wax for next time after I finished this batch.
Also, if you want wax running down the side of the bottle, hold the bottle above the wax after you dipped it for 1 or 2 seconds before flipping it right side up. If you don’t want drops down the side you will need to hold the bottle upside down until it stops dripping down into the can – this can take 20 seconds. For my “thin wax” look I dipped the bottle in and pulled it out right away. Once you finish all of your bottles remove the can from the heat and set aside. I then wrote the name of the beer on the side of the can so that I can use the same wax in the future.
My color codes are:
Raspberry – Fuchsia
Strawberry – Pink
Blackberry – Purple
Apricot – Light Orange
And here are the finished products:
The back label where i generalized Cantillon’s historic lack of labels into a definition for all lambic labels. The text reads:
historically the lambic beers of belgium where not labeled. the only way you could decipher what type of beer you were drinking was by the color of the wax on top of the bottle of the single stroke of paint on the front of the bottle. different colors were used for different fruits and the brewery was identified only by the name on the cork. both the beer inside this bottle and the design on the outside pay respect to the tradition of lambic brewers. we aged this beer for 18 months before adding our locally sourced blackberries to the fermenter for an additional 4 months of aging. share with friends while the beer is young to experience the bright fruit character, or age at cellar temperature to allow the flavors to develop in this bottle. cheers!
A close up on Kingsley’s redesign of our logo – a lot more modern. You can also see the texture of the linen paper I used for these labels. The paper looks awesome, but once you put the beer in the fridge it shrinks a bit (which you can tell from the Framboise and Fraise labels in these pics) so I don't plan on using this paper again in the future.
Another close up of the new Pipe Dream icon/badge. You can see that the thin wax shows the badge through well. Whereas in this next pic you can see that the thicker purple wax does not show the PD badge through well:
I have been rolling these beers out to bottle shares here in Los Angeles over the past couple of weeks and the feedback has been awesome.